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Blog October 19, 2017

A Hailstorm of Censorship at UBC

It would be nice to think that free speech in Canada is in surpassingly good health, that it can resist attacks from authoritarians and ideologues, that censorship is unthinkable in all but the rarest of circumstances. It would be still nicer to believe that Canadian universities consistently provide the necessary conditions for free expression and free expression, artistic expression included.

Unfortunately none of these beliefs is entirely true to fact.

It’s not that free expression and its cousin, academic freedom, are in immediate and dire danger in Canada. But there is a risk that universities, and the wider society beyond them, are moving through a crisis—a sometimes-subtle crisis—but moving in the wrong way.

Especially since the start of the millennium, doctrine and ideology have flourished even as the space for reasoned dialogue and artistic creation are constricted. Faced with inflexible and well organized “protest” on the so-called left and right, too many administrators and bureaucrats have given in to extremist pressure.

Two recent UBC cases are a lively reminder that the time to deal with this kind of pressure is now, not later.

Censoring an opera

In 2015, Stephen Chatman, an internationally known composer and UBC music prof, joined with Tara Wohlberg, well published poet—and musician in her own right—to write the libretto and score for a one-act comic opera, Choir Practice. UBC Music’s performance of the work took place May 8-9, 2015. The text is a funny and touching study of a community choir hoping for stardom in the Vancouver of the mid-1980s.

The singers’ emotional entanglements are many; there’s at least one love story and, naturally enough, an aria-duet called “Hanky-Panky.” The Vancouver Sun’s music critic, David Gordon Duke, had this to say about two peculiarities in the UBC performance (May 8-9, 2015):

[S]urtitles would have made for a better overall effect….A penultimate aria/duet (“Hanky Panky”) was omitted….With the duet excised, the finale becomes more conventional, more  sentimental. Impressive, even moving. But less effective.

Chatman and Wohlberg had offered to pay any production costs for the projection of surtitles, but of course, financial considerations did not weigh heavily in the decision.

As the critic at Classical Music later wrote

 I was much looking forward to hearing the infamously-blue ‘Hanky Panky’ aria (still on YouTube), controversially excised from this performance on the grounds that the audience will not “appreciate the language”…. No matter: Chatman’s music and Wohlberg’s crystalline and original libretto still seemed to carry the day.

So what happened to the missing aria? And the surtitles, or rather, the libretto? They are in the recorded version, but absent in the UBC performance.

The aria and surtitles were, as it turned out, censored.

The coup de grâce was administered by the Director of the UBC Opera Ensemble (who happens also to be UBC’s University Marshall). Announcing the aria had to go, the Director said in an email to Chatman (19 March 2015):

It really is…about the flow of the whole piece….I do not think that my audiences will appreciate the language used in it.

It won’t be performed under my watch, the Director implies, but you can do what you like if and when you arrange performances or recordings on your own hook.

As it happened, Stephen Chatman and Tara Wohlberg had enough social and political capital that the entire work—uncensored—did indeed see the light of day—at Centrediscs and on YouTube.

But what about the arbitrary involvement of the administration, and the Director’s appeal to the sensitive souls of adults who might be “offended” by the piece? And the administration’s attack on the musical integrity of the work itself? For these things, there was and is no adequate explanation: the story of Choir Practice is a tale of censorship—censorship that suited administrative convenience and catered to a few. Because it involved a university teacher, it is surely a case where academic freedom was under attack. But let’s move on, for there is more to this lamentable tale.

Censoring a pep song

There was a second chapter in UBC’s censorial saga, again involving Professor Chatman. This time it was about his pep song, “Hail, UBC.”

Like most universities, UBC has long relied on a “pep song” to encourage athletic prowess. A UBC pep song appeared first in 1932 but has been out of fashion for decades. UBC Athletics were understandably pleased when Stephen Chatman offered them in 2009 the copyright to the words and music of an entirely new “Hail, UBC.”

One might think this would end the story. The athletics department were delighted, Dr. Chatman was pleased to see his music played and used, and in 2017 UBC would use the new version of “Hail, UBC” to welcome the new intake of First-Year students.

But at a rehearsal in early September, four students announced they would protest any song that included the word “hail.” The word “cheer” was acceptable and was recommended to replace “hail.”

Here’s the current state of play as Professor Chatman describes it (2017 September 27):

I have learned that future performance and use of the song might be indefinitely postponed [and] that a promotional video…is to be put on indefinite hold.

Now, it’s possible the UBC administration will think again, and go ahead with performances and video, both. They may agree it would be morally and artistically outrageous to maul a song in order to please a minority. They may even agree to restore the song’s text and to ensure its future as UBC’s pep song.

But in a crucial sense, these things would come too late, if they come at all. So far, the Vice-President Students has offered (as of 2017 September 27) to arrange meetings to decide what to do with “Hail, UBC.”

I won’t trouble readers with a list of the peculiar reasons why four students took exception to one word, but note that this is surely the thin edge of an enormous wedge.

If creators and teachers must consult students to decide if and when their creations and lectures are “okay,” and if administration officials feel they must supervise that “consultation,” then freedom of expression is in big trouble. So is the university’s educational mission, as the university has made no particular effort to inform students about the long history of the song, the many uses of the word “Hail” (not least in a well known meteorological phenomenon—the hail storm).


The story of Choir Practice and the sad fate of “Hail UBC” are closely similar to cases at Yale, Harvard, Berkeley, Chicago, Toronto, Middlebury, and…Vancouver. Here, context matters


Last Friday, 2017 September 29, the Globe reported a remarkable controversy at Massey College, an endowed residential facility in the University of Toronto that provides space for graduate students and a home for distinguished professors. One such professor was Michael Marrus, a renowned historian of France and of the Holocaust. The Globe’s Simona Chiose takes up the tale:

Dr. Marrus was seated with three Junior Fellows, graduate or professional students who live in residence at Massey. Hugh Segal, the head of the college, who has – until recently – carried the formal title "Master," came to join them. As Mr. Segal sat down, Dr. Marrus said to a black student: "You know this is your master, eh? Do you feel the lash?" The students have filed a written complaint with the college.

This was clumsy humour.  In the old world, maybe pre-2000, it could have been an occasion for more speech and more education: in that older world, Marrus’s comment would have led to debate—right then, and right there.

In the new world, the Director of Massey College has already suspended use of the title “Master” (borrowed from Oxbridge, of course), and already accepted Michael Marrus’s resignation as an unpaid Senior Fellow at Massey.

The power-play is intriguing. By Friday evening, the Director’s authority wasn’t in doubt, but its basis lay with students. Two hundred had signed a petition “demanding” Segal give up the title of Master and rid the College of Dr. Marrus. Segal did as they asked. Massey has begun “anti-racism training…offering a ‘sincere and unreserved apology’ for the incident.”

The Globe mentions that Massey College has an independent existence at the U of T. This means the usual forms of academic governance are not available. Thus Dr. Marrus couldn’t appeal to have an open hearing with students or administration.


A final bit of context, once again from British Columbia: an SFU philosophy professor, Holly Andersen, has launched a petition to force a name change so “The Clan,” an SFU sports team, could play in American colleges without implying that we are “naïve” or “disrespectful,” considering that one homophone for Clan is…Klan, as in Ku Klux Klan.

Professor Anderson is on to something as she made this an internet-based petition. The petition has attracted 300 signatures. If the Massey College experience is a guide, then Simon Fraser University’s athletic department may as well begin ordering new jerseys for its teams, reprinted with some new name (a name that has a strong, ideologically clear basis, one presumes). The sheer weight of numbers is, although only in part, what counts. Professor Andersen has her reasons, and they deserve to be considered. But so do the reasons of people like SFU sociology professor Herribert Adam, who suggested SFU “do a better job of communicating the meaning of the name rather than change it.”  Meanwhile SFU spokesperson Kurt Heinrich says “the university is sensitive to the issue.”

What does one do in a hailstorm?

The usual thing is to take cover and wait for better days. But in the prairie provinces, where hail storms are a regular feature of summer weather, farmers learned long ago that it’s better to take out a good insurance policy—on your crops or your car or both.

At UBC, SFU, Massey College, Berkeley, Yale, and many others, it is time for a sustained public discussion about the way we see free expression, artistic creation, teaching, and research. That is part of the “insurance policy” we must take out.

At the same time, the unwritten rules of civil, open debate may have to be stated in full—as they used to be when we learned civics in high school and university. The role of open discussion in academic life, in departments and senates, has to be revived. And the powers of administrators will have to be reined in. Yes, we need them, but we need if and only if they meet the conditions.

And in all of this, students must be like everyone else, welcome participants in sustained dialogue and debate—guided by evidence, shaped by a clear educational purpose, open to the public, resistant to the idea that sheer force of numbers (or worse, the force of violence or threats of violence) will ever decide the argument.